MurBorr 09-12-174

Borrowing Brilliance

The Six Steps to Business Innovation by Building on the Ideas of Others


David Kord Murray

Gotham Books, 2009, 292 pp.  ISBN 978-1-592-40478-0



Murray is an entrepreneur, inventor, and executive.  He claims there are no original ideas, that all new ideas and innovations are “borrowed” and reassembled.  His goal is to “take the creative process out of the shadows of the subconscious mind and bring it into the conscious world.” (Introduction)  His six-step process is well illustrated with fascinating examples, including examples from his own life, making the book very interesting and providing insight into the author’s personality.  It draws a number of parallels (misguidedly in my opinion) between creative thinking and the “blind self-organizing principles” of Nature.      


The first section of the book is about the origin of an idea and it follows a construction metaphor.  The first three steps are:

  • defining (defining the problem to solve),
  • borrowing (borrowing ideas from places with a similar problem), and
  • combining (connecting and combining these borrowed ideas). 

The second section is about the evolution of an idea and it uses an organic assembly metaphor for its structure.  The last three steps are:

  • incubating (allowing the combinations to incubate into a solution),
  • judging (identifying the strength and weakness of the solution), and
  • enhancing (eliminating the weak points while enhancing the strong ones).



Part I.  The Origin of a Creative Idea

Chapter One.  The First Step—Defining

The Problem as the Foundation of the Creative Idea

Every good idea is a solution to a well-defined problem.  How the problem is defined determines how it is solved.  It is more difficult to see the problem than to solve it.  A good formulation of a problem is more essential than the solution.


“Constructing an idea foundation involves: identifying a problem (choosing a site); determining root cause (laying the footings); and understanding the scope (pouring the foundation).” (38)  “Observation is the act of studying the production and destruction of patterns.” (44) To get to the root cause, keep asking “Why,” like a little child. 


After identifying a problem, define the set of problems that surround it, a whole hierarchy of problems, each originating from one above and creating more below. 


Having identified the problem you begin gathering materials to solve it.  Borrow from people, places, organizations, and things with a similar problem.  Then ask what problems will be created by the solution of this one!


Decide which problem to begin solving.  Do I start high or low?  If the question is marketing, do I start by deciding whether to use direct marketing or what color envelope and type of insert to use?  See the problems as a chain.  Look for the weak link?   


Chapter Two.  The Second Step—Borrowing

Using an Exiting Idea as the Material to Construct a New Idea

You borrow ideas and combine them with other things to construct your creation.  The farther away from your subject you borrow materials, the more creative your solution appears.  If you borrow the solution from your competitor, you’re a copy cat, and may risk legal trouble.  If you borrow an idea from nature or poetry or your childhood experience, you’re a genius. 


“Keep your eyes open, hone your observational skills.  Observe your customers.  Look for the making and breaking of patterns.” (80)  Observe both problems and solutions.  Scott Cook noticed that customers were using a personal finance program for their small businesses and he developed QuickBooks.  Every idea has an opposite.  Look at opposites for a novel approach. “Business history is filled with stories of companies doing the opposite of the market leader and becoming market leaders themselves.” (88)  Seven-up marketed itself as the “uncola.” Look into areas similar to yours.  Look at nature.  George de Mestral invented Velcro after observing how burrs stuck to his socks.  SONAR and RADAR were patterned the guidance system of bats.


Chapter Three.  The Third Step—Combining

Connecting Existing Ideas to Form the Structure of the New Idea

“Every idea is an amalgam of ideas that came before….” (107)  “By using a metaphor, a comparison of one thing to another, you intellectually connect the two things.  Once this connection is made, the metaphor is extended and the two things are allowed to grow, merging the two ideas together.” (110) The extension of the metaphor creates the framework for your idea.


 “Creative thinkers are metaphorical thinkers.” (111)  Imagination is the result of new metaphorical understandings.  (112)  The combining of ideas gives birth to a new thing.  George Lucas combined mythology and science fiction to produce Star Wars.  Mark Zuckerberg used the metaphor of a college yearbook to produce Facebook. 


Part II.  The Evolution of a Creative Idea

Chapter Four.  The Fourth Step—Incubating

The Subconscious Mind as the Womb for a Creative Idea

Effective thinking is sometimes not thinking at all.  Put the idea away.  Let it incubate.  Your subconscious mind makes connections your conscious gatekeeper won’t allow.  Feed your subconscious.  “Repeat to yourself: 1) What problem am I trying to solve? 2) What solutions can I borrow to solve it? And 3) What combinations can I make to solve it?  Write the problem out.  Describe the borrowed ideas.  And start making metaphorical combinations.  Then periodically review what you’ve written. …  You’re just trying to teach your subconscious….” (153)


Pause in your thinking routine.  Take breaks.  Take walks. Spend time not thinking.  Listen to your subconscious feelings.  ”Listen to your mind when it hands you an idea.” (171)  Often misunderstandings are the gateway to the subconscious.  What did you read, hear, or say wrong that turns out to be a pretty good idea? 


Chapter Five.  The Fifth Step—Judging

Judgment as the Driving Mechanism in the Evolution of an Idea

Judgment is a means to enhance ideas, to drive the evolution of them. Look for the weaknesses and strengths of an idea.  Look for the potential objections.  But before discarding it, look for the value in it.  What piece of it can you use?  What should survive?  Use your imagination.  Debate the strengths and weaknesses.  Attack and defend your ideas.  Eliminate the flaws and enhance the strengths. 


And examine how you feel about it.  Feelings often indicate something going on in your subconscious that may surface with logic later on.  Emotional judgment can often sense an inconsistency or a beauty that pure logic misses.  Intuition is the magnificent side of judgment.


Chapter 6.  The Sixth Step—Enhancing

Trial and Error as the Passage to the Creative Solution

The left brain takes things apart and the right brain puts them together, perceiving the whole.  Creative thinking needs right-brained skills to be able to see how the pieces fit together, the form they make.  Otherwise you get lost in details.  The sixth step is really an iteration of the first five, going through the process again, re-defining the problem, re-borrowing materials, re-combining the structure, re-incubating the solution, and re-judging it all again. 


“In business, simplicity is critical because the competition for solutions is fierce. … So you have to provide the world with a simple idea, something easy to understand and pass, or else it gets lost in the shuffle.  Unnecessary complexity kills it.” (239)


When Murray worked for Intuit selling income tax software, they had a 20% response rate on mailings asking people to update for the next year – an unheard of mailing response.  His boss wanted it improved!  The solution:  Murray mailed the software with an invoice and a simple welcome rather than sending a promo mailer with sales language.  The customer only had to send the fee to get the key to unlock the software in his hands that it appeared he had already ordered!


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